Why would a kitchen worker at Outback Steakhouse who has never voted in
his life, who told Mother Jones point blank Im not into politics, make
twenty-seven campaign contributions in a single year?
For Devin Nelson the answer is he agreed to let the Outback Employees PAC
deduct money from his paychecks. And why would an employee who has no
interest in politics agree to such a deal? Andrew Fitzgerald, a kitchen
manager whose paycheck is also docked by the Outback Employees PAC, told
Mother Jones, Lets face it, when the big boss asks you to do something
and not doing it may hinder reaching your ultimate goal youre going to do
Andrew and Devin are in the minority of Outback Employees PAC contributors
contacted by Mother Jones. Two thirds said they didnt mind giving to the
PAC. But the other third, who said they didnt care much about national or
state politics, suggested they felt pressured by corporate politics into
signing the agreements. I just did it because they said I should, Seth
Kaplan a former Outback manager told Mother Jones. They kind of implied
you had to do it. They said everyone does it and let you know how much
you contributed compared to others.
Outback employees arent the only ones having their paychecks docked.
Campaign finance data from Florida and Ohio show tens of thousands of
union members and employees of companies with employee PACs whose
paychecks are docked regularly to fund political war chests.
Finding paycheck dockers in campaign finance data can range from
ridiculously simple to nearly impossible. In Ohio, for example, the
transactions are actually coded as payroll deductions. But the Federal
Election Commission doesnt itemize contributions until the contributor
gives more than $200, so small contributions wont show up. Florida,
however, itemizes all contributions no matter how small, so the hunting
is pretty good.
The first thing most reporters do when they get a database of campaign
contributions is sort by amount, so the biggest show up on top. Its a good
way to find the real political powers. Its also a good way to see if the
elections board performs even the most rudimentary enforcement of
contribution limits. (If someone exceeds the limit with a single check and
nobody notices, you have an instant story.) But if you are looking for the
average Joe whose paycheck is being hit, reverse the query so the lowest
amounts come up on top. Then look for contributors who give very small
I was slumming in the Florida Board of Elections contributions data when
I first noticed such bizarre amounts, like $3.37. I wondered why anyone
would write out a check for Three Dollars and Thirty Seven cents? So I
did a query to show all of the records with that amount and was amazed to
find the same guy writing the same check every two weeks.
I checked the hundreds of other odd amounts, like $6.51, and found much
the same thing. Most of the contributions were made every two weeks by
the same few people. Most of the money was going either to corporate
political action committees like the Outback Employees PAC or the AETNA
Employees PAC, or unions like the Dade County Professional Fire Fighters
Association or the State of Florida Teachers PAC.
Before long I had a list of names and addresses of people whose paychecks
were almost certainly being docked by their company or union. The
database also showed exactly how much each PAC raised, where the money
went, and what proportion came from each employee. I thought it might be
more information than anyone else had bothered to share with the employees
and figured it could lead to some interesting quotes.
Aaron Rothenburger and Jennifer Liberto made those calls, hundreds of
them, and wrote the story, Rough Cuts for the November/December issue of
Mother Jones. You can read the story at
Jack Dolan can be reached at (573)884-1802 or
by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.